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Iraqi crowds riot for water, attack media buses

ZUBAYR, Iraq—Humanitarian aid missions to two Iraqi towns have turned into chaotic scenes of shoving and mayhem in the past two days, hammering home the tough problems facing efforts to provide food, water and medical supplies to needy civilians in a country still riven by war.

At Zubayr on Tuesday, riotous crowds pillaged seven tractor-trailer loads of bottled water, then turned their wrath on two busloads of reporters and photographers. At Najaf Monday, hundreds were left hungry and angry at a food drop that fell well short of the need.

At Zubayr, British forces fired into the air in an effort to re-establish order. But the aid convoy fled chaotically, leaving behind one truck that was overturned in the mayhem. At Najaf, townspeople who were supposed to have welcomed the American-protected effort angrily denounced it.

Both aid missions were sponsored by Kuwait's Red Crescent Society. Many in the crowds were angry at the presence of foreign journalists who accompanied the deliveries.

"You make us look like criminals," one angry man in Zubayr shouted shortly before bricks and full water bottles began pelting the buses that housed foreign journalists.

Tuesday's convoy began with a wrong turn at the port city of Umm Qasr, which delayed its arrival at Zubayr, south of Basra, by four hours.

Once there, the convoy split, with one group trying to unload at a hospital south of the town while another parked in a large vacant lot near the center of town.

Both locations soon turned violent, with men and boys fighting to climb into and on the trailers. Aid workers were overwhelmed, and the water went to the strongest and most aggressive in the crowd.

Others complained bitterly that the men were looters stealing the water to sell on the black market. Young men and teen-age boys were later seen carrying off cases of water in donkey carts or taxis while women, children and the elderly went without.

Many in the crowd were incensed at the Kuwaitis for the poor organization. They also said the aid mission would be unnecessary if someone would just restore the town's electricity to power a well and pumping station.

"We have food, but 14 days no electricity. We need engineers," said one man.

When the trucks were empty at the hospital, the crowd turned more violent. Reporters and photographers were trapped in their bus for about two hours, protected by British Marines, as the mob tried to break in to seize cameras. The small contingent of Marines fired into the air to disperse the crowd.

"All of this needs to be handled by the military so we could have some order," a British private lamented as he nervously eyed the mob.

One of the trucks overturned as its driver tried to negotiate through the crowd at the hospital, nearly crushing several people who were running alongside.

Near downtown, the scene was much the same, with boys hurling rocks and full water bottles at the media bus. A brick shattered a window.

Truck drivers wheeled their rigs out of the lot with young men and boys still inside and on top of the trailers. The men and boys jumped to the ground as the trucks gained speed.

Maj. John Case, a U.S. Army humanitarian operations officer at the scene, said the United Nations had deemed the city "not a permissible environment" for aid operations. But the Kuwait Red Crescent had "gotten braver" and decided to deliver the water anyway.

"It's well-intentioned," he said with a shrug.

A Kuwaiti Red Crescent official acknowledged, "We had a bad day."

Monday had been better at Najaf, but only slightly.

"We've needed food and water for a long time. We are starving here," said Alaa al-Yasir, a 23-year-old pharmacy student who had come to a warehouse on the edge of the city hoping for relief. "We thought we would get something today, but we got nothing. Nothing."

A caravan of 16 trucks escorted by U.S. troops and aid workers pulled into an abandoned factory complex about noon Monday to big waves from a gathering crowd and delighted shouts from children of "good, mister, good!"

The problem was that the food was to be distributed not to the crowd that had gathered but through a rationing system built around the food-for-oil program that for several years has given monthly allotments of beans, rice, flour and cooking oil to the country's poor.

But organizers also wanted publicity to mark the shipment's arrival and decided to give away a fraction to the crowd.

"Where are the Kuwaiti journalists?" said Col. Tim Regan, commander of the 30th Civil Affairs Battalion. "We'll do what makes the Kuwaitis look good."

Iraqis waiting outside the gate jockeyed for hours in the sun into one line, then into rows, then into more lines—each change marked by boys and men shoving each other for better position.

To the side, a few women and girls formed another line, and it was mostly to them that the food went: one case of water and two box meals that included shortbread crackers, canned cream, cheese, tuna and 6 ounces each of mango juice and artificial chocolate milk.

The chaos worsened when Regan walked into the crowd to fulfill a pledge made to his 7-year-old daughter.

"I told her I'd give candy to the children of Iraq," said Regan, who works for a defense contractor in Washington, D.C., when not on active duty.

But it was mostly men and older boys who pushed forward to grab the goodies from his hand.

"No, no, no!" shouted Sgt. 1st Class Ken Perkowski, 39, of St. Louis, who was wearing a helmet autographed by Geraldo Rivera. "Get back! Get back!"

Few in the crowd spoke English, however, and fewer heeded the shouts of the American troops. They backed off only for minutes before muscling forward again.

The pushing and shoving continued, and more U.S. soldiers were summoned.

"We need more people, like an infantry platoon, to keep these people at bay," Maj. Val Siegfried yelled into a satellite phone. "There's a couple hundred here, and when nightfall comes, it's going to be tricky."

Indeed, through hours of shoving, there were no injuries. And when the reinforcing platoon showed up shortly before dusk, the crowd had calmed and shrunk to about 100 adolescent boys.

But Ali al-Mahra lingered for hours and said he was angry that he would leave empty-handed.

"We have been through a lot here, and this help is only for a few people," said the 32-year-old mechanic. "America and Kuwait have so much, but we have so little. Can't you give more?"


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.